Thursday, 1 November 2018

In the Margins (1993)

This story is very 'Fortean' in theme. When I was young I distinctly remember being on holiday in an English seaside resort (I think it was Poole or Weymouth) and seeing large clumps of grass raining from a clear sky. The clumps fell very gently, almost like parachutes. Since that time I have believed without question that rains of frogs, fishes and other peculiar objects are perfectly possible. 'In the Margins' was published in a magazine in the late 1990s and also appears in my Tallest Stories book.

At the bottom of our garden lies a pond, ringed by gnarled and ugly trees, and at the bottom of the pond lies a cottage. The waters swirl around the crumbling stones in little spirals, foaming over the ruined chimney as if reluctant to press in too close. In the troubled mirror of this pond, the cottage stands tangled in the reflection of the trees, netted in their twisted branches as if it had been lodged there by an unnatural gust of wind.
How the cottage came to reside under the waters of our pond remains a mystery. Is there any truth in the assertion that a witch caused it to subside by slow degrees for arcane and unfathomable reasons? And if so, who was this witch? There are no records to shed any light on the matter; there is only conjecture and speculation. I, for one, prefer this ingenuous explanation to those suggested by the more prosaic members of our community. I refuse to accept that it was built there, in its present location, as some sort of liquid joke.
Not that this would have presented any problems to the patient trickster. The pond could have been drained easily enough, the cottage constructed and then the water pumped back in. But the sheer obscurity of the joke causes me to frown and make many a harsh grimace when I consider this option.
Instead, I often languish by the side of the pond, peering down into the depths, and repeat the word "subsidence" as if it were a mantra. A slow subsidence, as slow as the growth of a dead man's fingernails or the twisted trees themselves, would have sufficed to preserve the cottage intact in its descent. No beams would have been shaken loose, no thread of thatch unravelled. They rot now, it is true, but such decay is quite a different matter.
One evening, taking some kittens to the side of the pond, to save them from the knife of my brother, I witnessed a peculiar and disturbing sight. No sooner had I tied the little weights around their necks and dropped them one by one, like depth-charges, into the glinting water, than an unusual commotion began far below.
I am not a superstitious being by nature, but my senses are keen, and so, not wishing to waste an opportunity to initiate gossip, I threw myself to the ground and, ducking my head into the icy water, strained my eyes to discern the origin of the turbulence.
A second later, I regretted my decision. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I perceived a tiny man standing at the door of the cottage. He was holding a large net on the end of a pole. Such nets were familiar to me: I had spent many happy hours on the moors with an identical net, collecting moon-moths to be ground into powder in the apothecary's shop. I had developed a certain skill in utilising my net; a skill not shared by my aquatic counterpart far below.
Gasping and wheezing, he aimed the net at the kittens that floated down past him. His frantic motions were the source of the disturbance. He utterly failed in catching a single specimen. The kittens struck the bottom of the pond and disappeared into the sinuous weeds. Bubbles erupted from each mossy collision. The tiny man shook his fists and snapped the pole of the net over his knee. Then he threw the pieces away and pulled his hair in a parody of rage. The pieces floated up towards me and broke the surface tension of the pond inches from my face.
While I was questioning my sanity, and just a moment before I could bear the noxious waters no longer, the angry homunculus chanced to gaze high above and spotted me looking down. The expression on his face must have mirrored my own. We were both paralysed with astonishment. For long moments, our eyes were meshed together by fibres of emotion impossible to understand. And then he darted back into his cottage and returned with an equally tiny woman. I assumed that she was his wife. He pointed up at the sky and together they gaped at me.
Panting, I pulled my head out of the pond and took a long deep gulp of air. I resisted the temptation to take another look at the submerged cottage. I had decided that I was suffering from a form of madness or delirium. I resolved to forget the experience and make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. I left the pond and made my way slowly back up the garden-path to my house.
Yet as I walked, I started wondering again about the peculiar sight I had just witnessed. Supposing that I was not mad? Supposing that the phenomena had been real? I had heard many stories about falls of strange objects from the sky. There had been reports of fish, ice, betel nuts, coins, worms, eels, snails, snakes and frogs. This last item on the list made me shudder. I repressed this shudder and stroked my chin. Such objects were supposed to orbit the world in an eldritch region in the sky before falling. A region that lay in the margins of reality.
If this was true, then it was possible that I was living in such a twilight realm myself and had been the cause of a strange shower in another world. The tiny man had obviously been trying to collect one of the falling kittens as proof of his bizarre experience. Probably he would have as much difficulty convincing his neighbours and friends of my existence as I would have convincing my own neighbours and friends of his. I decided to say nothing and to resume my mundane life without ever mentioning even the submerged cottage again.
As I approached the door of my house, I heard a thud behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw the body of a tiny man slumped in the bushes. I thought at first that my diminutive neighbour had tried to follow me and had drowned in the air. But then another body fell into another clump of bushes and I looked up. The sky was full of little men sliding through the atmosphere with weights tied to their feet. And higher still, to my complete amazement, the face of an enormous kitten gazed down at me with eyes the size of seas.
My first reaction was to rush into my house and return with my wife, so that there would be at least one other witness to this miracle. However, it occurred to me that if I could simply catch one of the tiny men alive it would be evidence enough. I had no nets, but I could use the old-fashioned method. I had a sudden ludicrous image of a host of different dimensions impinging on each other, kittens hurling down men, men hurling down snakes, snakes hurling down frogs and frogs hurling down kittens...
I called out to my wife and then opened my mouth wider. My long sticky tongue snatched the little men from the air before they hit the ground and I stacked them in a little pile by my side. Naturally I swallowed a few. Life in the margins of reality does seem to have its advantages. It is not every day that guests just drop in for dinner.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Heavy Rain on a Slow Train (2017)

The two brief texts that follow can be regarded as chapters that were lost from my novel Cloud Farming in Wales. They weren’t lost from there, of course, but I had to do something for the sake of symmetry. My novel is a tribute to the writer Richard Brautigan and his Trout Fishing in America book. He genuinely misplaced a pair of chapters, which he later rewrote and included in his collection, Revenge of the Lawn. This is precisely why I also require two lost chapters, and why they had to appear in a separate story collection of mine, The Seashell Contract. And here they are:


Escaping the Rain

We had to leave Wales or go mad. We were already crazy perhaps, crazy to escape, to get out of the endless downpour. Our umbrellas were dented canopies on twisted poles. They had endured too much, and so had we. It was time to flee, to hurry into the rain and rush to the train station, and to catch a train, any train, heading east.
The English border is only an hour away. We just had to cross the big river that marks the frontier; and we knew the torrential rain would cease at that point, or at least slacken considerably. Rainfall in Wales is about eighteen times as heavy as it is in England, according to the latest figures released by the meteorological office.
But we all know how they tend to underestimate things. Probably they had received bribes to downplay the downpour. The truth of the matter is that in Wales it never stops raining, not even for one minute, and on those days when it seems not to be raining it simply means that a very big flock of birds is migrating directly overhead.
We headed for the train station and bought tickets to Bristol. The train pulled into the station and we jumped onto it. Then we searched for seats in the crowded carriages. The train was bursting with commuters. Maybe other people had decided to escape from Wales too. At last we found free seats in a carriage at the rear of the train.
One seat faced forwards and the other seat faced backwards; and both of them faced each other across a plastic table. Chloe lowered herself into the seat facing forwards before I had a chance to object. That was the seat I wanted! But no point being childish or churlish about it, so I sat down in the other seat, the one facing backwards.
Travelling backwards in a vehicle often makes me feel nauseous and I much prefer to face forwards and look out of a window to see where I am going. But this seemed to be a trivial detail at this stage. The crucial thing is that we were together, Chloe and I, and escaping the rains of Wales. It was a relief to have finally taken this step.
The guard blew his whistle and the train pulled out of the station. We waved farewell to Cardiff and its dripping relentlessness. We held hands across the table, and this felt nice and romantic and special, but there was a persistent tugging, as if a force was trying to break our grip. I fought it and noted that Chloe was fighting it too.
“Something is yanking at my arms,” I informed her.
“Mine too. Just keep hold of me.”
“I wonder what it is?”
“Probably the inertia of the train’s motion.”
“Pesky laws of mechanics.”
And so we held hands, fingers in gloves intertwined, until an inspector came to check our tickets. He punched a hole in them with a little device, returned them to us and lurched on his way. Then we resumed the holding of our hands, both of mine in both of hers, or both of hers in both of mine, across the table. It felt important to do this.
I wasn’t sure why it felt so important, but it did, and even when a very powerful itch tormented my nose I refused to scratch it. I endured it until it went away, which it eventually did. The time was passing. At long last we were approaching the tunnel that would take us under the river, and on the far side we would be in sunny England.
The train hurled itself into the tunnel mouth and the view beyond the windows went black. My ears popped. I frowned at my reflection in the glass and saw that it was holding hands with Chloe, but I wondered why her reflection was out there, in the window, and I feared I was losing her; that she was on the other side of a barrier.
“What are you doing beyond the window?” I asked her, and I jerked my head to indicate her reflection.
“No, I am here. You are the one in the glass!”
I froze at her words. She knew.
The train emerged from the tunnel. No rain streaked the windows. It was a dry sky that confronted us, blue and speckled with clouds that were white rather than an angry dark grey. This was England, a country where it doesn’t rain every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.
It was a place where it would be possible to make a fresh start without squelching, without growing mouldy. The train pulled into the station at Bristol. Then Chloe disengaged her fingers from mine and stood up, and smiled at me. “Time to get off. We’ re here,” she said. Then she noticed the tears in my eyes, like substitute rain.
“Yes, you have arrived, but I haven’t,” I said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was sitting the wrong way,” I explained. “I have been travelling in the other direction all this time. You were facing forwards and that’s the way you have gone; but I was facing backwards and I’ve ended up going west instead of east. I know it doesn’t look that way, but appearances are deceptive. We are further apart than ever!”
“Where are you now?” she asked.
“Almost at Swansea. Should be arriving in a few minutes. That’s what happens when passengers sit opposite each other instead of side by side. I realise we didn’t have a choice. These were the only free seats. It’s a real shame. Don’t forget me, Chloe, please!”
“Take care in the rain, dear,” she begged me.
I promised her I would. She couldn’t linger any longer. The train was about to depart. With a tender look, she broke away and got off the train just in time. She stood on the platform with a raised hand and I raised my own in a melancholy salute. I shut my eyes.
I opened them again. The train was pulling in to Swansea. The heavy rain was beating against the windows. Everything was greyness, mist and blurred lights. At least one of us had managed to escape! That was better than nothing! I listened to the bark of dogfish as the train came to a stop. The flooded city was infested with them.


It Goes Without Saying

Mondaugen has invented many different kinds of vehicle and it was thus inevitable that he would eventually turn his attention to designing a new kind of train. There was nothing special in the way it looked when it was finished; but he insisted that the power source was something quite new and that it would save a lot of money.
He couldn’t interest any of the authorities in investing in it, so he was forced to pay for the construction of a prototype himself. This is normal when it comes to Mondaugen’s creations. He spends all the profits that he earns from his successful inventions on his unsuccessful ones. But at first his new type of train seemed promising.
“Silence is the fuel of the future!” he announced.
We craned forward to catch these words, because he hadn’t made this announcement very loudly. In fact he had merely mouthed words silently and we were expected to lip-read them. Some of us managed to do so. A few of us can’t even read newspapers all the way through, let alone lips, and they remained as confused as ever.
“The engine of this vehicle,” he continued silently, “runs on smooth air, on undisturbed atmospherics. In other words, even the vibrations of the barest whisper will disrupt the fuel that it feeds on and ruin it. That’s why I insist on no talking in its vicinity.”
This was a lot to ask from a crowd of curious Welsh onlookers. Most of us had squeaky or squelchy shoes and dripping noses from the endless rains of Wales, and total silence was an unknown ideal in our damp lives. I thought that Mondaugen was going to be disappointed, but we tried our best not to make a sound, to be inaudible.
How the engine processed silence into motive power is something he never explained in detail. Sometimes I wonder if Mondaugen knows how his own inventions work, but that doesn’t really matter. The main point is that they do work, and work well, although they often go wrong later. But this one seemed to go wrong from the start.
He pulled a lever on the side of the engine but the vehicle just refused to budge. It stood on its metal wheels on the rails and slowly rusted in the rain. Mondaugen waited and we waited with him. Then he placed a finger to his lips. He assumed one of us was rustling or making some other faint noise and polluting the fuel, but we weren’t.
It was a vehicle that ran on absolute silence. Talking would bring it to a dead halt. It was a train that goes without saying; and such an invention is doomed in Wales. Not only is Wales a garrulous country in terms of its inhabitants, but the rain doesn’t just pitter-patter like normal rain in other nations. It makes conversation when it falls.
The raindrops in Wales have tiny mouths that utter a word when these drops bash themselves open against the ground, roofs or umbrellas. They cry out in joy or surprise or fear or just for the hell of it. Although a man with a stethoscope might be able to hear these words clearly if he’s lucky, he won’t understand them. They are inhuman.
And that’s why Mondaugen’s train was doomed to failure. The instant he realised the rain was responsible for sabotaging his project, he made a few half-hearted efforts to fix the problem. Nothing helped. At one point he persuaded us to stand on the roof of the train with umbrellas, shielding it from the rain. But there was too much noise.
Everywhere there was splashing and the utterances of those tiny damp mouths, the background hum and buzz of Wales, wettest land in creation, and silence stood no chance. We dismounted from the roof and cast aside the useless umbrellas and waited for him to acknowledge defeat. But he’s always the most stubborn inventor imaginable.
He kept tinkering to no avail and finally I approached him, tapped him on the shoulder and broke my vow of silence. I said, “A train that runs on silence is a totally unfeasible device here. Why not convert the engine to run on a more practical and plentiful fuel, such as rainwater? Can you try that, do you think? Invent a kind of rain train?”
He could, of course. He was Mondaugen, the most ingenious inventor ever to plod through the puddles of possibility, or wade the waterlogged vales of wonder, in this saturated land of ours. He could take his spanner right now and make the necessary adjustments to the mechanism without delay. Because that’s the kind of genius he was.
He stood back, panting. The rain streamed down his face, but he was happy. He had converted the engine from one that runs on silence to one that was powered by falling rain. It was ready already. He reached out to pull the lever. We watched him in trepidation and leaking shoes. Down went the lever and the train simply disappeared.
It vanished in a blur; and all that remained was an afterimage that was so persistent it is probably still there. There is so much rain in Wales that a train powered by the stuff is going to fly off at the speed or light or even faster than that; and it will vaporise or go backwards in time. No one can guess exactly what happened to it, not even him.
We all turned away and left the scene. We walked without enthusiasm and our knees shone in the rain and our feet squeaked in the rain and our chins dripped in the rain and our ears flapped in the rain and our nostrils quivered in the rain and our souls rotted in the rain. I made an apology to the great inventor. I felt it was my fault and said:
“Wales is simply too rainy.”
“That also goes without saying,” he answered.

Well, there you have the lost chapters of Cloud Farming in Wales. They weren’t really lost, because to get lost you have to go somewhere and in order to go somewhere you have to exist; and these chapters didn’t exist until after I had decided they were already lost, which is the wrong way around. But that doesn’t matter much.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

A Dame Abroad (2013)

I have written many unconventional crime stories over the years. I have written several linked sequences of them, including The Long Chin of the Law and The Sticky Situations of Zwicky Fingers. The following tale was dashed off quickly for an editor who put out a call for unusual crime fiction. Many different private eyes are mentioned in the adventure and I intend to write a story featuring each one as a main character. Heston Furball has already had his moment of glory in a story called 'The French Lieutenant's Gurning'. The others will get their chance in due course.

She was a dame. She talked like a dame, moved like a dame, smelled like a dame, breathed like a dame, slept like a dame, yawned like a dame, coughed like a dame, dusted like a dame, cooked like a dame, had the metabolism of a dame, knew about as much astrophysics as a dame would, had a selection of hats typical of a dame. She was a dame.
No doubt about it. A dame through and through. Her hips were as wide and curvy as a concert piano and her feet were like pedals, so if you stood on one while she was talking her voice would become a swelling overlapping echo and if you stood on the other her voice would be muted and soft. But no man could play her well. She was out of tune.
Her lipstick was a dame’s lipstick and it was the colour of the edges of a bullet wound or some sort of massive head trauma. It could even be said that it was the shade of blood that gushes from a busted lip. It wasn’t the lipstick of a homunculus or panda. She left her apartment and swayed down the length of this sentence to the end of the paragraph.
Her hips kept getting stuck between the margins of the story, that’s how wide they were, but she finally arrived on the street and headed downtown, a part of town under uptown. She was going there because the plot told her to and she had no choice. She was without choice, without even a dame’s choice, but she had everything else a dame should.
Yes, she was a dame. She was also a broad. A broad is a certain kind of dame and in fact I don’t think there’s any difference between them, but I’m not really an expert. Maybe there is a miniscule arcane difference, something to do with the atoms of the ankles. Who knows? I don’t. Maybe you do. Maybe you are a dame or broad who knows. Well done.
I am a private eye. That’s who I am. I used to be a public eye, but people got upset and complained to the authorities about my appearance. They didn’t like to see a gigantic eye rolling along the pavement towards them. It disturbed them that the rest of my head was missing, that I had no body or limbs, that I was just an eye with the diameter of a cottage.
So the authorities forced me to go private and encased me inside a brick pyramid and now I blink out near the summit of the structure and you can find me on the hill overlooking the town. I don’t solve many cases these days, to be honest, but that’s because I’m too busy living a fantasy life. In my fantasy life I’m a man with all my parts fully functional.
These daydreams are starting to occupy all my waking hours. I imagine that my name is Sergio Surges and I have a moustache so big that a policeman can conceal himself inside it. This is helpful when confronting lethal criminals with their deeds. For example, at this precise instant I’m about to enter a bar where a notorious gangster is playing pool.
I watch him splashing about with the rubber ducks and toy boats but it’s rude and dangerous to stare so I turn away and order a drink from the barman, who happens to be a midget pygmy.“Rum.”
Pygmies are quite small already, but the midgets amongst them are really tiny, no higher than the knees of a freak spider.
“What kind?” he asks.
“The kind that begins with the letter B,” I reply.
“Brandy, you mean?”
“Sure! Make it a double on the rocks.”
He places a selection of pebbles on the bar and slowly pours the alcohol over them. I nod and pay him. I also tip him. Over the edge of the tall stool on which he stands. He plummets through an open trapdoor that leads to a very long passage that passes through the world all the way back to where he came from, which is the Pygmalion Republic.
That passage is so long it goes on for umpteen hundred thousand pages. This is the highly condensed version.
“What did you do that for?” cries the notorious gangster.
“He was corrupt,” I answer coolly.
“And what the hell do you think you are?”
“I am Sergio Surges, the private eye who is more than just an eye, and I am not corrupt at all, partly because this is just a daydream, but I know for an unchecked fact that he, the barman, was taking bribes from you in order to let wicked things happen on the premises.”
“Oh yeah? What sort of wicked things, buddy?”
“No idea. I don’t bother with little details like that. It’s too much effort. Maybe he allowed you to fight the shadows of gibbons on that wall over there. Or maybe he let you to use a freshly baked pizza as an indoor Frisbee and the toppings were pineapple and chocolate.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“Do I look like an Englishman and Scotsman and Irishman? Of course it’s no joke. You are under arrest.”
“I’m going to kill ya with my heater!”
He gets out of the pool and plugs a portable electric heater into a socket on the wall, taking care not to drip on the wires, and waits for the filaments to start glowing. But he is far too slow. The policeman in my moustache instantly reveals himself and blasts him with a truncheon that is actually a mini-bazooka and I watch him burst like applause.
A round of. Very satisfying.
The door swings open and the dame walks in like a baby grand. My jaw drops open. What is she doing here?
“This is my daydream. Get out!” I bellow.
Her lipsticked lips curl in a sneer that is half smile. “A daydream? Fine. I am a day-dame, so I belong here.”
I despise it when confusions arise and unplanned things happen in what is supposed to be my personal fantasy. I usually escape them by going into the next level of daydream, by closing my eyes and imagining I am Hugo Lobes, a private eye with ears so large that a couple of pygmy midgets can hide behind each one, both armed with blowpipes.
I am sitting on the top deck of a tram and reading the newspaper and the front page headline screams at me that a terrible gangster is sitting downstairs on the same tram at this very moment, so I get up to make my way down the curving set of metal steps, but my way is blocked by a woman who is coming up. To my dismay I recognise her...
The dame! She followed me into this fantasy!
“This is most unfair!” I roar.
“I go wherever I please,” she retorts.
“But I thought you didn’t have a choice. It said earlier in this story that you were a dame without choice.”
“Precisely. I have no choice but to go where I please.”
“You mean that your free will is—”
“Predetermined,” she says.
So I vanish into the third level of daydream, the level where I am Bogie Clubs, a private eye with such a big mouth that gibbons could bake pizzas in there without anyone getting suspicious, and I am on the deck of a cruise ship that is heading to the Bermuda Shorts, a pair of islands where a gangster has taken refuge in one of the deep pockets.
A steward approaches. “Would monsieur care for a drink?””
“Gin,” I answer languidly.
“What kind?” he asks in a high voice.
“The kind that begins with the letter V,” I reply.
“Vodka, you mean?”
“No thanks. Vermouth please.”
But he doesn’t go to fetch me my beverage. Instead he pulls off his cap and unbuttons his jacket to reveal—
The dame! It’s the dame again! That damned dame!
I vanish into the next level.
Now I am Griswald Jerkins, the private eye with a chin dimple so deep that a tram driver with a halberd could conceal himself and pop out and swing it most effectively at the drop of a hat, especially one of those very heavy hats that make a clanging noise when it lands. I am furiously pedalling a unicycle up a mountain path in pursuit of a gangster.
Another unicycle catches up with me, draws level.
The rider is the dame again!
I escape into the next level. I am Morton Punchbowl and—
The dame, the dame, the dame!
Through all the daydreams she follows me and each subsequent fantasy has slightly less detail in it, is less fleshed out, sparser, bleaker, less real then the one that preceded it, and each private eye is less convincing, because I’ve spent less time working on their identities and environments than I might have done. But fleeing this way is my only hope.
Here’s a short list of some of the private eyes I become:
Mickey Stains.
Hercule Pompbustus.
Heston Furball.
Flippy Masters.
Duckbreath Chumptaster.
Ratleg Smashy.
Occidental Brushtooth.
Ajax van Scruba.
Chickpea Bunkerlove.
Zippy Buttons.
Gusty Nuts.
Lemontoe Thumbrag.
And then I run out of daydreams and run out of names and run out of big body parts and run out of time, energy and space, and I find myself, as I’m sure you have already anticipated, completing the circle, closing the loop and becoming myself again, a colossal eyeball inside a pyramid and I glance down and see her climbing the hill towards me.
“Leave me alone!” I scream.
“I will now,” she says. “I just wanted to go on a journey, that’s all, out of this story and around the world. I wanted to go abroad. I was a dame but a stay-at-home dame. And now I’ve been abroad, so I’m a dame abroad and a broad at home, and it feels just fine. I climbed up here to thank you but also to ask your advice. I really need to know.”
“What is it?” I am frantic to get rid of her. I’ll say anything to make her go away, answer any question. And then it comes, she hits me with it, and I’m more acutely aware than ever before that she’s a dame, that she has the soul of a dame, the heart of a dame, the plot of a dame, the metaphors of a dame, the grammar of a dame, the power of a dame.
“How do you curl your lashes?”


Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Billie Holiday on Vacation (2016)

This is a brief strange story that began with the title alone; and the title just entered my head one day, for no other reason than that it's a symmetrical and absurdist phrase. The title was the seed and the rest of the story grew naturally and rapidly from it. Jazz songs sometimes evolve this way too. The story is included in my book The Seashell Contract which was published in 2017 in aid of charity.

Billie Holiday on vacation, it is said, once happened to meet Billy Vacation, who was on holiday. It took place in a place that mended shoes and cut keys. One of her heels must have come off or something. Mr Vacation was leaning on his counter and licking his lips as if they were located in another country. He said:
I adore all your songs.”
Many of them haven’t been recorded or even written yet,” she replied with one shoulder hunched higher than the other. It was the right one. But there is no right or wrong when it comes to shoulders.
He nodded in sympathy. “Future events. That’s nice.”
She knew what he was probably thinking, which was that she had a deformed shoulder, whereas in fact her posture was entirely due to the fact that the heel had snapped off her left shoe. Mr Vacation, for his part, was thinking that she was guessing what he was thinking and was correct in this guess, but for the wrong reason.
Mr Vacation had seen too many people totter into his place with lopsided shoulders and they always had the heel of one shoe missing. But he understood that one day this would not be the case, that someone would approach his counter with a shoulder that was biologically higher, or lower, than the other shoulder, a person with asymmetrical shrugs. Do the laws of chance make this event inevitable?
Well, yes they do. And when he took his first look at Billie Holiday in the flesh, even though he was aware that her shoulders were normal, he decided that today was the day for the prediction to come true. So he said in his most soothing voice:
There’s a hospital just up the street.”
Billie had already stooped to remove her damaged shoe and now she held it up and placed it down on the counter. “They don’t fix shoes there. I already asked.” Her shoulders were no longer lopsided, which meant she was standing on only one leg. He couldn’t be sure, because the counter was in the way, but even when there was no counter in the way he was unsure of so many things in life. How to make soup, for example.
His soups were terrible. They were solid.
He had once been able to use one of his soups as a doorstop to stop a heavy door, but he couldn’t recall what he had stopped it from doing, and that’s another story and another suppertime anyway.
Mr Vacation examined the broken shoe. It was a fairly easy job but he made faces and made noises with the mouth of those faces, just one mouth for all the faces, because it is good to economise in these days of fiscal fretting, when old shoes are mended more often than bought brand new, not that it’s possible to buy old shoes brand new…
But you know what I mean,” he said to himself.
Why does this place mend shoes and cut keys?” she asked. “I’ve always wondered why places that do the one also do the other. That’s like a bread shop that also sells guns. I don’t see the connection.”
Just to be clear,” he replied, “this place doesn’t mend shoes and cut keys. I never have and never will mend a cut key. I cut new keys and that’s what this place does and why I’m in it.”
An undertaker’s that is also a hat shop…” she was musing.
Mr Vacation continued to lick his lips but now it felt as if they were on their way home, tanned from the sun, still sleepy from lazy days on the beach and dancing at night. They tasted of coconut and exchange rates. His tongue was like shoe leather, the saliva that coated it like melted keys but cooler. It turned in the locks of his mouth, causing it to open wide, and then he said, “The machinery is the same.”
I beg your pardon?”
The machinery used to mend shoes and cut keys.”
Now I comprehend.”
They looked at each other. “What brought you to Florida, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asked mindfully.
I am on vacation. And you?”
I’m on holiday. It’s a working holiday. I mend shoes and cut keys in Oregon. I traded places with the guy who mends shoes and cuts keys here. It’s just for one month.”
A little trip to the Florida Keys, you could say?”
He laughed. It had been the only joke a customer had told him since he arrived. He gestured behind him at a wall festooned with keys. He indicated the key furthest on her left. “That one must be Key West,” he said, as he took it down and held it under his nose like a robot’s moustache. Did it smell of marlin and cocktails? In his imagination, yes, but undercut with a tang of shotgun powder.
Is it true there’s a lock for every key?” she asked.
I’m certain that there is.”
In that case, why not attach a large key to the bottom of my shoe rather than a heel?”
Mr Vacation considered the unusual idea. He knew what she was hoping would happen if he did this. There are doors everywhere, doors of perception, doors of fate and opportunity, invisible doors locked fast against our blunderings and gropings. Some of these doors are like trapdoors, on the underside of the ceiling of the sky, and others are like manholes, embedded in the ground.
She might walk directly over the door labelled ‘musical history’ and unlock it with her new heel. It would spring open and she would plummet through into the safest of all safe spaces for reputations. She didn’t yet realise she had already passed through that door.
Yes,” she said when he explained all that, “but maybe I didn’t lock it behind me. So I still need that key.”
If the machinery is the same, why not? He cut the key for her and fixed it to the bottom of her shoe. She tried it on and now her shoulders were straight even when she stood on both legs at the same time. She paid him and walked out of his sight and he never saw her again. She must have trodden on that lock and made that door secure against being opened by a casual talent such as his own. And thus she vanished from the gigantic room of this world into another.
When his month was completed, Mr Vacation returned home and an effort was later made to track him down by historians of the great singer, but his trail, his Oregon Trail, like hot soup left unattended on a doorstop too long, had gone cold.


Friday, 6 October 2017

The Catastrophe Trials (1991)

One of my earliest surviving tales, I wrote this in one quick session at the end of December 1991 and it inaugurated a series of adventures featuring Titian Grundy, the absurdist Prefect of Police in a futuristic society located on the Isle of Chrome. This linked series formed a novella called 'The Long Chin of the Law' that was published as one of the three linked sections of my book Nowhere Near Milkwood in 2002. There are other tales set on the Isle of Chrome and perhaps one day I will write more stories about Titian Grundy himself. But this was the very first.

In the old days, of course, murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. And let there be no doubt that they took full advantage of their freedom. They rushed and shook, shattered and toppled whenever it suited them. They had no conscience.
The first Natural Disaster we arrested was the volcano that erupted on the outskirts of our City when the President was making his inaugural speech. Without stopping to retrieve his hat and coat, he raced to the scene with many attendants and ministers. He did not hesitate to show his concern on camera. The ash had engulfed one of the richer suburbs, the President’s majority.
There was a hung Parliament then, an economic crisis followed as share prices fell sharply. The President took to drink and gambling. Women were a mystery to him. His nose was too large. Before he had completely destroyed his liver, we decided to take action.
The trial was swift. Our Judges proclaimed the volcano guilty with due solemnity and sentenced it to life imprisonment. They stood on the volcanic glass and hammered off pieces as souvenirs. We solved the problem or removing the remainder to a place of security by constructing the prison around it. We used iron bricks. We threw away the key.
To be perfectly honest, the idea was not entirely my own. I knew a poet once who suggested it. She had long hair and a winsome smile. I loved her, but I could never give her any credit, not even of the financial sort, and thus it was I, Titian Grundy, Prefect of Police, who became the renowned and much-loved one.
There followed a period of prosperity then, hope, luxury even. There was a Golden Age of sorts. We expected a Platinum one to be just around the next corner.
The blue Tsunami rolled in from the east, towering so (I gesture here with upraised eyes) that we could not see the noontime sun. It bore an island with it, one of the outlying Aracknids wrenched free from the Continental Shelf, palm-trees and huts and village life all still intact upon the rich soil, although the latter considerably disrupted, and it crashed down on our wharves with the force of the Cosmic Serpent’s own heartbeat. Our crystal piers became shards, glistening on the green waters of the harbour, a hazard to shipping for many years to come. Very pretty they looked too, those shards, more pretty even than the original structures, though that is missing the point.
We had greater difficulties with this one. After all, the guilty party had melted away into the greater ocean again. We had nothing to point the finger at any more. But we were not foiled so easily. We employed mathematicians to calculate the probable volume of water involved and we pumped this amount directly out of the sea. We were not above punishing innocent liquid if necessary, yet we felt sure that at least some of the molecules we had acquired had been responsible.
We took longer over this trial. We stored the water in a large outdoor tank and adjourned often, fishing or boating on the accused, thus forcing some Community Service out of it while we waited for the verdict. Naturally, the Defence Lawyer was outraged. He was also frustrated. We cut his wages, handpicked the Jury ourselves and let them make the correct decision. We tortured our captive with red-hot pokers.
During these revolutionary changes in the legal system, I never failed to miss my poet. I tried to behave like an ordinary man: I visited the President and played croquet on his lawns. I married a beekeeper and asked my poet to become my mistress. She turned me down, however, having had enough of such romantic entanglements. She adopted a cat and took in lodgers instead.
You know the way I feel about my work. I have had doubts, but they have been few. I do not believe that I must justify my actions. I have posed nude, grown a fiery beard and learnt to juggle. I envy the arty set, I suppose. I can no longer walk into a student pub without being jeered at. I love my poet more than ever. I have not yet forgotten her name.
I write this report as a story for good reasons. Last summer, a particularly vindictive tornado escaped from its reinforced bottle and wrecked my office. All my papers were shredded. My filing-cabinets were peeled back and my secretaries stamped through the floorboards. I was left without a single record of my achievements. That is why I must circulate this one more carefully. Perhaps it might even find its way into the pages of a fiction magazine.
These tornadoes, incidentally, were my first real mistake. We collected them in barrels at first, but these were easily burst. We tried jars before bottles. Our bottles were made out of stainless steel. We had to wait until the tornado began to die and shrink to the correct size before pouncing. This did not seem to deter others: they saw how much damage they could do before they were apprehended. They began to come in pairs.
The mistake I made was as follows: I issued instructions to bottle tornadoes before they had formed. We collected them before they had committed any crimes, and forged the documentation. The scheme seemed to work quite well. The number of arrests increased dramatically. I was awarded a bonus.
And then one day, I received a telegram from the pressure group Amnesty Interstellar. They had been making the rounds of the prisons. One of the developing tornadoes I had arrested had turned out not to be a tornado at all, but a dust-devil. I was disgraced. I had to resign and move into politics.
The President and I became firm friends. We both complained about the World, about life, about women mostly. I drank espresso and smoked fat cigars. The President wrote pamphlets and picked his nose, which were both tasks that could take all day. My captive tornadoes were released. An independent body was set up to monitor Police procedures. My statue in the plaza was defaced.
I am no longer handsome, but my poet is still beautiful. She now works as a Careers Officer. There is a man who wants to marry her. He takes her to restaurants in a solar-powered glider. I know: I have seen them. I will follow them one day in my hot-air balloon. I have kidnapped her cat.
The President keeps a typhoon in his cellar. A man I know at the prison smuggled it out to us. In the evenings, the President, the cat and myself, creep down the winding stairs and peep cautiously at it. We are careful not to open the door too wide, in case it escapes. We feed it model towns which it devours with great avidity.
The World is going soft. We will soon return to the old days, when (as I said before) murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. Sentences are being reduced everywhere.
I hear that even the volcano on the outskirts of the City is due up for parole next year.


Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Pig Iron Mouse Dooms the Moon (2012)

Whimsy is an essential part of the literature of the fantastic and indeed I am prepared to argue that it forms the most basic and essential foundation of any attempt to create a genuine work of imagination, because although it doesn't take itself seriously in thematic terms its proper rendering in prose is a serious endeavor in itself. In other words its existence is paradoxical. The most poignant archetypes of fantasy have frequently been inaugurated in whimsical works before transmigrating to more somber and portentous fictions.

I’ll tell you why I hate the moon so much, said the Pig Iron Mouse, his whiskers twitching and picking up radio broadcasts from far away. I don’t have any secrets, and if I did I wouldn’t keep them from my friends, and even if you weren’t my friends I would tell you anyway, I would, he added with magnetic sincerity.
     The light, that’s why, that’s the reason! That mellow spreading on the charred toast of the shadowy landscape of night, it makes life harder for any nocturnal creature that fears predators. And I live in constant dread of the Molybdenum Cat, that prowling howling demon with the electric headlamp eyebeams.
     He can switch them off when the moon’s full and then he’s more dangerous than ever and only last year he pounced on the Cupronickel Vole and dented him to death with his teeth, and that’s not the way I want to go, no sir, no madam, not the way at all! Pounced on from behind a tumbled stack of science journals.
     So I decided to get rid of the moon, do away with it, break the blasted thing and even the odds a little, a smidgen, a sliver. And I thought of ways I might accomplish this feat and it occurred to me that maybe the best course of action would be to catch the moon as it touched the horizon on its way to bed. I decided to impale it.
     Now I’m not cruel, not at all, and I didn’t want to make the moon suffer, so I raised a very long thin sharp pole on the horizon and I greased it for the entire length, and I knew that the moon’s doom would be quick on that slick skewer and nearly painless. I used all my engineering expertise to make that deadly pole, truly I did.
     Then I waited for the moon to rise in the east and travel across the sky and settle down unawares on my lethal spike, but for some reason the full fool missed my trap, cunningly wrought and perfectly positioned as it was, and set behind the pole. I was dismayed, let me tell you! Had I made an error with my calculations?
     Well, I set off on foot and reached the base of the pole and there I saw that it no longer stood on the horizon. Somehow the horizon had moved further away to the west. Maybe it was migrating for the season, heading elsewhere to breed or feed or do whatever it is that horizons do to keep themselves in line, I don’t know.
     So I made another pole at the place where the horizon had gone to, it was an identical greased spike, long thin sharp, and I waited again and once more the moon missed the point and set behind it. I puffed my cheeks and popped a rivet in the left one, that’s how exasperated I was, and I set off to locate the new site of the horizon.
     This went on and on and I never succeeded in impaling the moon and one morning I reached the horizon and saw that a pole was already there. It was the first one I had fixed in place. I had gone right around the entire planet! That realisation annoyed me slightly and I felt despondent and very tired and I was embarrassed also.
     You are going to ask me where the Molybdenum Cat was during this time. It’s a good question and the answer is that I don’t know, no sir, no madam, but I guess he was around about, lurking smirking, metal fur bristling, waiting for the opportunity to pounce, but that opportunity clearly never came for here I am, still here, me, talking to you.


I wanted to know, continued the Pig Iron Mouse, how the moon was avoiding my traps so successfully, so I decided to find out. What I did was this, he added, his whiskers drooping and the signal fading and the strange dance music from distant lands dying. I plucked out my left eyeball, the one above the cheek that had popped the rivet, I did.
     I plucked it out and it was already loose, so it didn’t hurt much, and I made a rocket engine powerful enough to carry that eyeball, which after all was a minimal payload, out of our atmosphere, with its odour of buttercups and weasels, and into space, outer space, and through the void, the external void, all the way to the moon, and down.
     When the eyeball was safely down on the surface of the moon, it was able to peer up at our planet, the world we’re standing on right now, and watch as the Earth travelled across the sky and set on the horizon. That’s what it saw, and because it saw that then so did I, because it was my eye, still my eye, up there on the moon, our moon.
     And then I realised that it was all a matter of perspective. That’s why I had failed to impale the moon! From the surface of the moon things looked very different, very different indeed, yes sir, yes madam, and in fact it was the Earth that was doing the setting on the horizon, not the moon. Which explains why it wasn’t landing on my spikes.
     Perspective was to blame, that’s what I concluded after my eye saw all that, so I decided to approach the problem from that angle. I went to the government department responsible for perspective and I knocked on the front door but it didn’t open, so I knocked on it again even harder and it still remained shut, but a window gaped wide.
     The window was high up, on the top level of the building, and an unseen voice called down at me, saying: sorry, no member of the public is allowed inside the Department of Perspective, please go away and don’t come back! And then the window was closed with a bang and I pretended to go away but in fact I hid and waited for nightfall.
     Then I entered the building by climbing onto the roof and sliding down the chimney. Once I was inside I located the room where they keep the machines that control perspective, devices that ensure that parallel lines stretching to infinity only seem to converge at a distant point but don’t really, and I adjusted the dials more to my liking.
     Then I sabotaged those machines so they were stuck like that. And I climbed back out of the chimney and headed for home and now I noticed that the two parallel lines of the railway track I walked down really did meet at a point, and that point was next to my house. I turned my key in the door and it was very late when I went to bed.
     When I awoke early in the morning I went to prepare my breakfast and I had broccoli and chocolate as usual, but something had changed. The pieces of broccoli looked like the trees of a rainforest and the triangular wedges of chocolate resembled alpine peaks, and because the laws of perspective had been changed they really were that massive.
     Needless to say, I only nibbled at them and then I went out and amused myself by filling my cheeks with air and puffing at distant towers that instantly fell down because they were only as big as they looked, whereas objects that were near my remaining eye seemed large and therefore were. A lost child’s marble was like a fallen moon.


When the real moon appeared in the sky, continued the Pig Iron Mouse, I simply reached out and snatched it in my jaws. Then I crunched it to pieces between my teeth. Can’t say it was particularly tasty. No sooner had I finished than I spied the Molybdenum Cat far away, coming over the horizon like an idle thought. I seized my chance.
     I lunged at his tiny figure and I don’t rightly know what happened next but he vanished from sight. I’m fairly sure I didn’t swallow him. The only plausible explanation is that he jumped into my empty eye socket, the left one, and hid inside the cave it formed. Probably he still lives there, like something out of prehistory, warming his paws around a fire.
     I bet he even invites passing travellers inside to sit around the flames with him while he entertains them with stories, tales about the Pig Iron Mouse, like this one for example, exactly like this one in fact, told from the viewpoint of the Pig Iron Mouse himself, just to be clever. And now the flames are dying down and I’ll bid you a moonless goodnight.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

In Eclipseville (2008)

This brief tale is the third in a short linked series about impossible or at least unusual cities, Moonville and Sunsetville being the first two. Originally the main character was going to be Frabjal Troose, who turned into an inventor of improbable machines, but in my fiction the contributory elements often go off on their own paths and I am happy to let them do so. That shadows can have brightness seems illogical at first but on closer analysis this is seen not to be so.

In Eclipseville the authorities have decreed that shadows are more real than the objects that cast them. Substances have no value there: the people would spit on them, if spit was not also a substance. The shadows of spitting people flit rarely on walls in that city.
Some grades of shadow are more highly regarded than others; this goes without saying. The shadows of watermelons have great status, as do those of clocks, scissors, very tall hats. The most valuable shade of all remains to be seen: the shadow of the sun.
Not all shadows are visual and cool. The authorities insist that musical notes are the true shades of instruments, rather than those dark outlines that pretend to be flutes, harps, dulcimers. The implications of this creed must seem absurd to outsiders. Cymbals are only symbols of their own tinkle.
In Eclipseville most nocturnal activities take place in the afternoon. Between lunch and teatime the lonely nightwatchmen poke about in cellars and catacombs for evidence of the night, in accordance with their contracts of employment, but never find any until they abandon the search and switch off their electric torches.
Meanwhile lovers perspire, servants worry about ghosts, burglars prowl, lurkers throb, pools of wax on tablecloths harden under stubs of candles in recently closed caf├ęs, astronomers squint through lenses on rooftops and talented insomniacs generate soft piano music or gently pluck the strings of muted lutes while uncultured neighbours snore.
Many of those talented insomniacs learned to play in the famous Music Institute, a building that is the grandest on the urban landscape. In truth it is not a single structure but a cluster of old dwellings sheltered by a translucent dome, a difference that is a question of interpretation, for a sweet melody might likewise be defined as a sequence of unrelated notes linked ‘only’ by a key signature.
Some say the palatial mansion of Frabjal Troose is one of those clustered dwellings; not I. Others say the Once Held Hands Crossing is also contained within the Institute; I disagree again.
My name is Sacerdotal Bagge and I am one of the authorities of the city. My disagreements are shadowy, like my policies, but I remain undisturbed, for not all shadows are dark. One day a brighter star will move behind the sun and the sun will drape its own shadow, blinkingly bright, on our houses, souls and financial affairs. A scorching umbra, shimmering.
Let it be known that Eclipseville had a difficult birth, for it was the result of a collision and meshing between two contradictory forces, the rival cities of Moonville and Sunsetville. When the moon passes before the sun the day becomes night, and wine, kisses, oddness, cool breezes and nocturnes are suddenly necessary. An expensive business…
An attempt was once made to freeze one of our best shadows. A hat taller than the highest minaret was positioned so that its shadow fell into a vat of liquid hydrogen. The procedure worked. When the hat was removed its shadow remained in the cold fluid.
But the shadow had turned brittle and when it was fished out it shattered into a million tiny sharp fragments. These splinters were caught up by the wind and swirled down the streets. Some specks lodged in the eyes of men and women; others stabbed into hearts.
With those motes blurring their vision, the citizens of Eclipseville saw hats everywhere. Teapot lids became sombreros, manhole covers turned into berets, even eyelids were perceived as being skullcaps for orbits. And soon I will have occasion to talk about other types of orbit. As for people with hat shards in their cardiac muscles, they soon found themselves brimming over, but not always with emotion.
Although a success, the experiment was deemed a failure.
That is often the case in Eclipseville, and I, Sacerdotal Bagge, have little desire to change our methodology.
In fact I backed the decision to make a second attempt, to freeze an aural shadow instead of a visual one, to solidify a musical note. We constructed a special machine. A hearing trumpet of immense size led into the side of a gigantic compression refrigerator.
A lever worked gears that lowered extremely heavy weights onto a piston. But first we needed something to compress. Musicians came and played the same note into the mouth of the trumpet and when the inner chamber was full I pulled the lever.
Slowly the sound was crushed into an enormous black orb. The chamber was broken open. Inside: solid music, smooth to the touch, humming faintly but insistently. What did we do with it? We launched it into space with a catapult, fixed it to the line of the celestial equator. A note belongs on a stave. Only there will it play properly.
Imagine many spheres of solid music – crotchets, minims, breves – in orbit, pinned by gravity to the ecliptic and other lines of heavenly latitude. An authentic prelude to the future…
The globe orbited our planet like a swollen drone, crossing in front of the sun and the real moon, increasing the frequency of eclipses visible from our city, but it did not play for us. There is no sound in a vacuum. No matter. The note was visible. We imagined it would remain in place forever, but it began to fade. The same note sustained too long becomes inaudible. We had forgotten that simple fact.
Eventually it was gone. We did not care.
A big mistake. Just because an object is invisible does not mean it has ceased to exist. Then something very unexpected occurred. A delegation from a brighter star crashed into the note without realising it was there and was destroyed. They had planned to offer us admission to a galactic club of advanced civilisations. The attendant benefits were consumed in blue plasma flames. For long minutes shadows held no sway.
The authorities of Eclipseville no longer emerge from their offices. They shamefully project their shadows out of little rooms over the thresholds of thin doorways, down marble steps, into the streets. They wag long flat fingers on flagstones, wavy fingers on cobbles.
These fingers form a musical stave. Shards of a broken moon fall on the lines or between them. Such things must happen in a city where one strange event is always eclipsed by another.